Here’s how the story doesn’t end: TV adaptations that make it up as they go along

Something strange happened in Westeros this past season, something that’s been building for a while now: Game of Thrones reached the end.

Of the books, anyway.

Since inception, Game of Thrones took us places the books could only hint at. But as the show has caught up to the books, it began giving us scenes that had not yet been written, characters diverging from their pre-written path, characters we were sure were going to have to be around for a while longer … all changed. Done with. HBO’s Game of Thrones is now an offshoot of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of books.

"Game of Thrones"

Part of this is out of necessity – the show came to the end of the books before Martin could write another entry – and part is that the writer/producers know where Martin is heading (he has told them). So loyalists to the books have just had to adjust their goggles and accept that this is the alternate reality version of “Game of Thrones,” and stop snickering with anticipation at how non-book readers have no idea what’s still coming. These days, even the book readers don’t necessarily know.

TV’s rapacious interest in book adaptations has been expanding lately. Used to be if a book got adapted it was a movie of the week, or limited miniseries. Today, if James Clavell’s Shogun got made for TV, they’d want to turn it into a multi-season series, not a self-contained story of would-be conqueror being conquered himself. But today, novels are seen as springboards and not holy writ: As I noted in Between the Lines last year around this time, HBO’s The Leftovers went off its official reservation in Episode 1.

This is what’s been happening at CBS’ Under the Dome. Stephen King’s fat novel could have expanded to a full season, wrapping up with an explanation for the surreal phenomenon while still being an excellent character study and exploration of evil. Instead, it just began its third season – and according to showrunner Neal Baer, there never was any intention of it being a limited-run series.

“The book was always a diving board for a concept, as King made clear from the beginning,” Baer told me. “He said to his fans, ‘You know how the book ends. Don’t you want to be surprised and go for a new ride, rather than a slavish adaptation?’”

Despite what’s often said about this golden age of TV in the press, Baer does not see that TV shows have become “novelized.” “A TV series is not a novel,” he said. “It’s an ongoing evolutionary process where you see how something works, and if you like it you continue it and if you don’t you tweak it. A novel is there for eternity.”

"Under the Dome"


The idea that Baer – and his peers at Thrones and Leftovers and any other number of shows – may now think this way upends how books have traditionally been adapted. Yes, The Wizard of Oz book had silver shoes, not ruby slippers. Yes, Gone With the Wind has a different ending in the book than in the movie. But usually an adaptation that nods in any way to an original creation has at least remained loyal to the original words on the page or images from the author’s mind. If a tale enshrined between covers is merely meant to be inspiration, calling it an adaptation or a movie/TV version of it seems like bait-and-switch. In that case, it’s only being used for its name value, a quick-and-dirty reference mark to lure viewers in while at heart it’s ultimately going to tell you the alternate universe version of this story an author had in mind.

Should an author care, then, if that is the way Hollywood wants to visualize his or her story? Wave a large enough check around and truthfully, most wouldn’t mind. Yet it does subvert the entire process of novel-writing in the first place. In the future, will writers come up with their own multiverse ways of telling the same story, in the hopes one will snag a TV producer’s imagination, while going forward with a different version for his or her publisher? Is this how we end up with Grey by EL James, the same story as Fifty Shades of Grey but told from a different point of view?

A story can be told a thousand ways. And the author of the story has the right to tell that tale in as many ways as he or she can get away with. Hollywood, when optioning that story, also has the right to tell that tale however they see fit. But neither seems to be very loyal to the story, in the end. By turning a tale into just a brand name for whatever fits into an expanding bag of tricks, it’s harder to love that tale. Because it has no beginning, no ending, no depth and no heart. It’s just a storyteller, adding on chapters in the hopes of not losing your attention to the next shiny object.

A world without end.

This story originally appeared in Curiosity Quills.